Posts Tagged ‘women in translation’

The Beginners

August 31, 2021

French writer Anne Serre’s debut novel, The Governesses, appeared in 1992 but was not translated into English until 2018, by which time Serre had published another thirteen. The Beginners has taken only ten years to be translated – once again by Mark Hutchison – following on from The Fool and Other Moral Tales in 2019. Serre has said that “What determines the start of a novel is a sentence that pops up all of a sudden and seems to me to contain an entire book,” and, certainly, the first sentence of The Beginners, as ordinary as it might appears, contains the entire focus of the novel:

“In August 2002, Anna Lore, aged forty-three, fell madly in love with Thomas, age fifty-six.”

The parenthetical ages suggest a newspaper story rather than a novel, and give some sense of the detached tone with which the story will be told. Anna’s love for Thomas is problematic as she is already in a twenty-year relationship with Guillaume, one which, she is happy to admit, it is difficult to fault:

“Their life was happy and had never come up against the deadweight of boredom or routine, they still made passionate love, travelled from time to time, seldom quarrelled, he was an architect, she wrote for art magazines, she had a childlike trust in him, he looked on her as a marvel.”

Anna’s situation is not new to fiction but Serre’s approach is playful, with the insertion of the couple’s occupations into the list a shorthand for a particular genre of comfortable middle-class relationship angst, followed by the hyperbolic description of their flawless love. This is no defence, however, against meeting Thomas, a man she only vaguely knows, in the street, and beginning a polite conversation which she dismisses as “of no great importance” but:

“In reality she was already strongly attracted to him and had been from the moment she’d set eyes on him, but she brushed that away into a corner at the back of her mind.”

In the next few months their relationship, such as it is, centres on the hope of running into each other again, with neither of them prepared to take decisive action. Anna, meanwhile, feels guilty about not being happier with Guillaume, while realising for the first time (as he tries to please her, suspecting that something has changed) that Guillaume “wasn’t bound to her body and soul, but had ideas and plans of his own.” The idea that they are an indivisible unit has weakened, but she still loves him, seeing Guillaume and Thomas as “two sides of a coin.” Entirely convinced of her love for Thomas (and of his for her), there is still little in the way of evidence. When they do finally meet again:

“Thomas didn’t flirt with her at all, he didn’t so much as glance at her even, but their love was already at its height.”

As the novel is presented from Anna’s viewpoint, we can only guess at Thomas’s motives, though he may sense that she is reluctant to begin an affair. Serre follows Anna’s thoughts and emotions in detail, though with, as has already been mentioned, a detached, almost playful, tone, to the exclusion of all else. This prolongs a potentially dramatic situation as, in Serre’s words, Anna’s “folly hurtles back and forth” like a “terrifying fairground attraction” to the point that it might stretch the reader’s patience; certainly, Serre is not primarily concerned with suspense. Even sections of the narrative which seem to escape from Anna (such as that which repeatedly asks, “Who are you, then, Thomas Lenz?”) reveal little of the other characters that cannot be observed by her.

The notion of Thomas comes to dominate Anna in the way it does the narrative:

“…she had a dream. And for months, for more than a year now, she had been nursing that dream in secret. So great had it grown that it henceforth filled the entire cage with its wings poking out, so that she couldn’t really hide it from Guillaume any longer.”

The image feels appropriate: her love is something that, like a dream, has lived largely in her mind (despite booking a hotel room, she and Thomas have not slept together) but it has grown to the point it can no longer be contained and Guillaume, at the novel’s mid-point, leaves her, confirming Anna’s passive role in both her relationships, a passivity that ensure we cannot be certain Thomas will simply take his place.

The Beginners takes the literary commonplace of the love triangle and, almost entirely through the focused lens of narrative voice, creates something new. By making Anna an innocent, and seemingly acted on rather than an actor, Serre removes moral concerns from the novel. She also enlightens with some wonderful images which develop Anna’s journey, for example:

“As in one of those science-fiction movies where the walls protecting a secret cavern… part for a moment to admit an aircraft carrier or let out a spaceship, enormous slow movements are taking place inside Anna. Walls you would have thought fixed pivot and change place…”

Though it feels tamer than her previous work, constrained as it is by a combination of Anna’s obsession and passivity, once again Serre demonstrates she is a unique and illuminating voice.

Eve out of Her Ruins

August 26, 2021

Ananda Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman) is a shocking portrayal of life as a young girl in Troumaron, one of the poorest areas in Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius:

“Troumaron, a sort of funnel; where all the island’s wastewaters ultimately flow.”

It is a place without hope, as Saad, one of the novel’s four narrators, tells us: “One day we wake up and the future has disappeared.” Eve has nothing – “I went to school completely and totally empty” – until one day, still a child, she discovers a new currency when, in return for the small things that the boys give her – pencil, eraser, ruler – one wants “a piece of me.”

“For the first time my bag was no longer empty. I had something I could pay with: me.”

Eve increasingly exists in detachment. Saad talks about her having “solitude for an armour” and she, too, recognises the “value of solitude.” In using her body, she believes she has “decided my life.” Eve is not the only victim; whereas Saad, lover of poetry as well of Eve, has some hope of escape, his teachers suggesting, “you can make miracles happen,” Clelio, our third narrator, is already immersed in a life of crime and violence:

“I’m at war. Fighting everybody and nobody. I can’t get away from my rage.”

The only joy in Eve’s life comes for her friend, Savita:

“Our earrings chime. Her nose is pierced with a tiny jewel like a star. The poetry of women is laughter in this lost place.”

Savita’s voice only rarely joins the narrative. Where Clelio sees Eve as an object of lust, and Saad as one idealised by his love, Savita can see her more clearly:

“It hurts me to se her so fragile when she thinks she’s so strong. When she’s serious her face is like a child’s, shocked in a dream, eyes filled with lights.”

Her picture of Eve echoes that of another voice which Devi employs in the novel, a second person which addresses Eve directly, perhaps from a different part of her consciousness:

“You have no choice now. You can only scrub your burdened flesh again and again, without realising that you are also erasing your own flesh.”

As you can see, the temptation to quote Devi’s words is almost irresistible such is the power of her voice(s). The horror of Eve’s experiences would perhaps be harder to read in plainer prose but it would be wrong to suggest that Devi’s ‘poetic’ language somehow lessons the impact of the poverty and hopelessness she is describing. The language is only ‘poetic’ in the sense it is precise, that it uses words to perfectly capture the experience, the thought – that, like poetry, it is both unexpected and recognised at the same time. This works both in aphorisms such as, “Everyone knows poverty is the harshest of jailers,” or in imagery, such as when Eve’s life is described as a hand around her ankle, or the previously quoted, more subtle, suggestion of friendship in Eve and Savita’s earrings chiming. Above all, the individuality of the expression convinces the reader that Eve, and the other narrators, are individuals, with complex inner lives.

The novel’s second part takes us into the territory of the crime genre. Devi cleverly begins with Saad’s narrative creating the impression that Eve has been murdered, an event that has seemed almost inevitable for some time:

“She was found in the trash, at the bottom of a skip.”

Eve, however, is not the victim, though she is connected to the murder. Clelio finds himself accused:

“Couldn’t fail. I was the first one to be questioned. The first suspect.”

Ultimately the real killer will be found, and Saad will be allowed to demonstrate his love for Eve, but there will be little sense of hope or redemption. Saad sees her “sculpted like volcanic rock” suggesting that Eve will survive but at the same time all life has left her. Eve out of Her Ruins is a devastating portrait of poverty, a novel which is easily read but difficult to forget.

Elena Knows

August 23, 2021

Claudia Pineiro is, on the surface, an unusual choice for Charco Press, who have generally specialised in bringing previously untranslated Latin American writers to an English-speaking audience. Pineiro, on the other hand, has already had four novels published by Bitter Lemon Press, and is relatively well know as a crime writer. However, as Fiona Mackintosh points out in her excellent afterward, this has tended to pigeonhole Pineiro’s work and “has perhaps overshadow a broader appreciation of the urgent social scrutiny of contemporary society that her novels undertake.”

Despite this, Elena Knows, translated by Frances Riddle, has all the hallmarks of a crime novel, if an unusual one. There is, first of all, disagreement over whether a crime has actually taken place. Only Elena, it seems, believes that her daughter, Rita, was murdered:

“Elena knows, even though everyone else says something different…”

Rita was found hanging from the church belfry – an obvious suicide according to the police, but Elena believes that Rita would not have willingly gone to church when it was raining due to her fear of lightning:

“Whatever it took to avoid going near that cross on a rainy day. That’s how she’d always been.”

Elena also makes for an unusual detective, not only because she is the victim’s mother, but because she suffers from Parkinson’s disease. This means that she struggles with the simplest of physical tasks, as we learn in the novel’s opening lines:

“The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimetres off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get it past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it.”

Elena is only able to function thanks to the drug Levodopa; as the effect of the drug wears off, she finds herself increasingly immobile, waiting helplessly until she can take her next tablet. This would be a challenge on a normal day, but the novel is set during one particular day as she attempts to travel to a building she and her daughter visited only once years before to find a woman called Isabel:

“If luck is on her side, if Isabel hasn’t move, or if she hasn’t died like her daughter died, she’ll find her there, in that old house in Belgrano that has a heavy wooden door with bronze fittings, right beside some doctor’s offices.”

Elena’s condition adds tension as her quest – involving a train and a taxi journey – is an enormous challenge for her. (In fact, Pineiro divides the novel into sections according to the pills Elena takes).  One of the novel’s strengths is the detailed way in which Pineiro conveys Elena’s difficulties, for example, when she leaves the train stain and is looking for a taxi but unable to raise her head, “like a swimmer who can only see the bottom of the pool.” Elena personifies her Parkinson’s as ‘Herself’:

“She accepts the punishment that Herself, her illness, imposes… It reminds her who’s in charge.”

It makes Elena a more sympathetic character, as otherwise she comes across as difficult, particularly in her relationship with Rita. Early in the novel, for example, she remembers holidaying together:

“They argued. Always, every afternoon. About anything… They fought as if each word thrown out were the crack of a whip, leather in motion, one of them lashed out, then the other.”

The more we learn of their relationship, the more this seems typical, though they are undeniably close, particularly now that Rita is Elena’s carer. Elena’s belief that Rita was murdered is sincere, but also self-serving as she does not have to consider why she may have killed herself. In the end, however, Pineiro’s focus is not murder or suicide but abortion.

The Isabel Elena is trying to locate was a desperate young woman when Rita found her outside a building where illegal abortions were performed (abortion was only legalised in Argentina in 2020). She takes her back to her house, locks her in her bedroom and then returns her to her husband:

“That afternoon, Rita, who was not a mother, and never would be, forced another woman to become one, applying the dogma she’d learned to another woman’s body.”

Every year since Rita and Elena have been sent a picture of the child and so Elena believes that Isabel is the one person who will help her. The truth is, of course, more complicated.

Elena Knows is a perfect example of how a skilled writer can tackle a social issue and at the same time produce a gripping and psychologically convincing narrative. As Elena retreats into the dependency of childhood, Rita encounters the reality of a kind of motherhood for the first time. Simultaneously, the novel forces the reader to question the mother-daughter bond between Elena and Rita, Elena’s belief in Rita’s murder being based entirely on how well she thinks she knows her daughter. The issue, in the end, is wider than abortion: a critique of the ways in which women are forced into physical and social roles they may not want, or even be capable of carrying out. Just like Isabel, Elena experiences for herself what it feels like to lose control of your body.


August 16, 2021

The success of Breasts and Eggs has, of course, opened the door to further translations of Mieko Kawakami’s work; the (hopefully) first of these is Heaven, written shortly after the first part of Breast and Eggs in 2009, and now translated by the same translators, Sam Bett and David Boyd. Heaven is a story of bullying, and contains within its 167 pages, some astonishing acts of cruelty ‘Eyes’, a fourteen-year-old boy with a lazy eye, is relentlessly picked on by the rest of his class, largely at the behest of Ninomiya, the most popular student:

“He was the best athlete in our grade, but he also got straight A’s, and he had a chiselled face that anybody would consider beautiful.”

The bullying is consistent but varied – in the first example they make him eat chalk; at another point in the novel they fill his desk with rubbish. The situation has an element of cliche about it, as does the friendship which develops between Eyes and Kojima, a girl who is also bullied, in her case for looking untidy and unwashed, which begins when she leaves him a note asking if they can meet. Their relationship largely revolves around writing short letters – they certainly can’t talk to each other in school – but their friendship comes at a cost:

“I was thinking about Kojima in a completely different way,

“Not like it was anything new, but it got harder and harder to watch and listen to the other girls in our class bully her, just like it was stressful knowing that Kojima watched me being bullied.”

The reader, trapped in the narrator’s powerlessness, will be disappointed if they are expecting a typical redemption arc. Kawakami is not so much tackling the theme of bullying as examining violence and cruelty in a more general way. to this end she introduces the character of Momose, who is as clever as Ninomiya, but who, unlike the others, participates in the bullying in a detached manner, almost like an observer. When the narrator meets Momose at a hospital, after a scene in which his head is placed inside a volleyball and kicked, he speaks to him for the first time, asking “Why…” Momose presents a cynical view of the world:

“Good and bad don’t enter into it. Everyone does whatever they feel like doing, whatever works.”

He portrays a world of urges which people can act on if they want to – “Isn’t it pretty obvious that no-one else is going to look after your emotions?” Does Kawakmai share this view? Certainly, there is no attempt to psychoanalyse Ninomiya’ behaviour in the same way as Kojima’s lack of personal hygiene sis explained. Breasts and Eggs demonstrated that Kawakami uses her characters to argue different positions around a topic and Heaven is no different. Kojima, too, has her theory about the bullying they suffer:

“Maybe we are weak, in a way. But that’s not a bad thing. if we’re weak, our weakness has meaning. We may be weak but we get it. We know what’s important, and we know what’s wrong.”

Kawakami has expanded on this in interview:

“I think we have a tendency to categorise people as strong or weak, but I think that weakness is really what’s at the core of, or a fundamental part of humanity.”

In the same interview she states, “In order to pursue happiness, I think there needs to be a sacrifice,” and in the novel, when Kojima takes Eyes to see the painting she calls ‘Heaven’, of “two lovers eating cake in a room with a red carpet and a table” she tells him:

“Something really painful happened to them. Something really, really sad. But know what? They made it through. That’s why they can live in perfect harmony.”

The focus therefore is on Kojima and the narrator’s ordeal, rather than the bullying itself; in other words, Kawakami does not allow the bullies to take centre stage. In the novel’s climax Kawakami manages to escalate the bullying to a crisis while at the same time providing an unexpected resolution. That the narrator, in visiting the hospital, learns that he can have his eye corrected cheaply, suggests that he has, ironically, gained from his cruel treatment.

Heaven is a disturbing read as the cruelty on display is wilful and conscienceless. There is also a sense that it is to be accepted, that if the bullying wasn’t directed at Kojima and the narrator it would be directed at someone else. This makes for a novel which is both emotionally powerful and philosophically challenging. Though it lacks the range and the novelty of Breasts and Eggs, it more than makes up for it in the focus of its narrative and the ferocity of its ideas.

Lost Books – Scarlet Song

August 12, 2021

I first read Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter in the 1980s, not long, therefore, after it was originally published in French in 1979. It seemed clear even then that it was an important work of African literature, and therefore surprising that little else of Ba’s work was visible. (This was a time when finding information on any writer, never mind an African writer, was far from straight forward). Almost forty years later, having failed to take advantage of the proliferation of the internet in the meantime to investigate this further, I was both surprised and excited to encounter a second novel by Ba casually slanted on a second-hand bookshop shelf: Scarlet Song. Of course, now I know that this was both Ba’s second and final novel, published in 1981, the same year that she died at the age of fifty-two.

Scarlet Song (translated by Dorothy S Blair in 1985) does not adopt the epistolary format of So Long a Letter, nor does it initially seem concerned with the lives of women, focusing instead on Ousmane, the son of a poor Senegalese Muslim family, who has the opportunity to escape poverty through a university education. Ousmane has worked hard to reach this point, rejecting other temptations such as falling in love, especially after an early rebuff:

“Whenever he felt himself beginning to fancy any girl, after the Ouleymatou experience, the memory of her mocking indifference and his own disillusionment had made him fiercely determined to nip any emotional attachment in the bud.”

This begins to change when he befriends Mireille, the daughter of a French diplomat, in his final year of high school. Though it is nothing more than a friendship, when the final exams are over, he finds himself thinking about her more and more frequently until “never a day now passed without his dreaming of her, her quivering lips became the focal point of his desire.” He allows himself this fantasy in the belief that they are unlikely to see each other again but when he arrives at university, he discovers that Mireille has declined the chance to continue her education in France and now, finally, he allows himself to fall in love

“Ousmane Gueye, who had mistrusted all women, threw himself at the mercy of a woman, and a white woman at that.”

Their relationship blossoms but Ousmane can’t help but wonder if they are compatible:

“Was he a possible partner for Mireille? Could he assume such a mutation?”

Both keep the relationship secret from their families. Ousmane tells his mother that the photograph of Mireille in his room is that of a film star; but when Mireille’s father discovers a photograph of Ousmane in his daughter’s possession, inscribed to her with love, he takes the drastic step of sending her back to France. Mireille’s father’s attitude may seem typical of the time, but Ousmane’s mother’s opposition, which becomes clear when Ousmane and Mireille marry when he finishes university, is for equally selfish reasons:

“A Toubab can’t be a proper daughter-in-law. She’ll only have eyes for her man. We’ll mean nothing to her.”

Ba’s novel is not so much about racism as it is about the clash of the two cultures. We have some warning of this when Ousmane is discussing Negritude with his friends; “I’m for returning to your roots and keeping the way open.” Once married, Ousmane wants to live as a Senegalese husband, eating in every room in the house, using a spoon rather than a fork, inviting his friends over and expecting Mireille to be at their beck and call. The change in their relationship is dramatic:

“We saw everything through the same eyes before we were married… But now we seem to be divided over everything.”

That Ousmane’s mother is constantly visiting, throwing her toothpicks on the floor, and making her displeasure at Mireille evident does not help. In the novel’s final section, Ousmane returns to his first love, Ouleymatou, and there is a growing sense that the two relationships cannot continue to exist concurrently for long.

Scarlet Song is a novel of its time, but the tensions created when individuals from different cultural backgrounds marry is not something that has been ‘solved’ in the last forty years. As in So Long a Letter, Ba’s real anger is directed at the way women are treated, which she emphasises by inflicting the traditional role of a Senegalese wife on a white woman, demonstrating how ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ can reinforce both privilege and subservience. This, she demonstrates, is perpetuated by both men and women. Discovering this novel, one can’t help but wonder how Ba’s work would have progressed had she lived to continue writing.

The Stranger Next Door

August 7, 2021

The Stranger Next Door was the first of Amelie Nothomb’s novels to be translated into English (by Carol Volk), in 1996 only a year after its original publication, and fourteen years before her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin in 2010. Nothomb is now regularly translated, though not quite at a pace to keep up with the novel a year she has written since 1992. The story begins when the narrator, Emile, a classics teacher, and his wife (and childhood sweetheart), Juliette, retire to a house in the country:

“When we saw the House we had a wonderful feeling of relief: this place we had been aspiring to since childhood existed after all. If we had dared to imagine it, we would have imagined a clearing just like this one, near a river, with this house – the House – pretty, invisible, a wisteria climbing its walls.”

They have only one neighbour, a doctor, which they find reassuring – “Juliette and I would be retiring from the world but thirty yards from our refuge would a doctor!” – until, that is, he pays them a visit. The neighbour, Bernardin, turn out to be taciturn in the extreme, rarely extending his speech beyond a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’:

“He reminded me of a depressed buddha. At least you couldn’t fault him for being a chatterbox.”

Despite his distinct lack of conversational elan, he stays for two hours. The narrator initially finds him “touching”, believing that he has visited only because “he felt obliged to… by some naïve idea of decorum.” However, the next day, at exactly the same time, he returns for a further two hours of mono-syllabic responses. Emile experiments with sitting silently but this only seems to anger Bernardin. He finds himself helpless to be anything other than well-mannered:

“I didn’t have the courage to be rude.”

The daily afternoon visits leave Emile feeling a “vague anxiety” even as he wakes up, referring to Bernardin as “our torturer”. After a few days they decide the only solution is to be out at four o’clock, but a walk in the woods results in Juliette developing a cold and she takes to her bed the next day and they decide instead to not answer the door. However, this simply results in Bernardin knocking louder and louder, “like a madman”, until Emile is worried he will break the door down.

Eventually, they invite Bernardin to bring his wife, Bernadette, for dinner, whom they discover to be even more outlandish than he, “a mass of flesh wearing a dress. or, rather, that had been wrapped in a piece of fabric.” Though they find her both horrifying and disgusting, they identify with her in the face of Bernardin’s persecution, finding that she “inspired tender sympathy in us.” Afterwards, however, Bernardin’s visits continue:

“I had first thought him inert because he sat for hours doing nothing. But, in fact, he only seemed to be doing nothing: in reality, he was in the process of destroying me”

In this sense, The Stranger Next Door is a slow burn thriller, with Nothomb’s focus not Bernardin but Emile. To what lengths will he go to be rid of his troublesome neighbour? At the beginning he claims he is powerless:

“We are so polite that our politeness has become unconscious. You can’t fight your unconscious.”

However, we are warned in the novel’s opening lines that:

“We know nothing about ourselves. We think we’re used to being ourselves, but it’s just the opposite. The more the years pass the less we understand the person in whose name we say and do things.”

The reader may also find their sympathies waver as the novel progresses. At times, Emile’s attempts to understand Bernardin can seem as invasive as Bernardin’s presence. Bernardin, on the other hand, explicitly rejects understanding. There is also something cloying in Emile and Juliette’s marriage. You may find lines like, “I had eyes only for the little six-year-old girl with whom I had lived for nearly sixty years,” sweet, or you may, like me, suspect that Emile is unable to see Juliette as an individual adult, describing her as “even more fragile than she was petite” and remembering happily when they showered together as ten-year-olds. (There are no memories of their adult life together). How you feel about Emile will colour how you feel about the novel’s eventual conclusion, and the choices that he makes. What is without doubt, however, is Nothomb’s ability to provoke her readers with a lightness of touch which disguises her more darker intentions.

Garden by the Sea

August 2, 2021

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “They are different from you and me.” Set in a villa on the Catalonian coast on the 1920s, Merce Rodoreda’s Garden by the Sea, translated last year by Maruxa Relano and Martha Tennant, tells a similar story. The novel unfolds over six years, narrated by the widowed gardener who observes the summer activities of its wealthy owners, Francesc and Rosamaria, and their friends, while also sharing in the gossip of the servants. As he says on the opening page, “There was no need to go to the Excelsior to see films the year they came with their friends.” However, their happiness does not last forever, and their seemingly care-free lives do not disguise a sense of foreboding:

“Such gaiety and youth, so much money… so much of everything… and two wrecked lives.”

Rodoreda’s masterstroke is the character of the narrator, who, as he says himself, is not garrulous, but likes people (and is liked). Far from being inquisitive he lets the story comes to him, adopting the same general attitude as he does with the maid:

“I had already noticed with Mariona that it was better to play dumb and then she would tell you everything. If you asked her directly, she was quiet as a mouse.”

He is honest, but in a kindly way, for example when Rosamaria asks him if he likes her horse:

“I liked the other one better, but I couldn’t see the harm in pleasing her.

‘Handsome, very handsome,’ I said.”

In return he is generally trusted by others and treated well, saying of Fransesc:

“He might have been less than perfect, he drank and lazed about, but with me, truth be told, he had always been kind.”

Since his wife’s death, the garden has been his only love, raising him above the flirtations and jealousies of the villa. Rodoreda’s commentary on the carelessness of the rich is generally focused on the damage which their drunken parties cause:

“It pained me to think about the gladiolus and the fate they had met: the whole stretch of garden was ruined. But those who have the money make the rules.”

Their indulgences include a pet monkey which is allowed to run wild causing further damage – it’s difficult not to assume some sort of comparison is implied. The novel includes numerous conversations where the narrator demonstrates both his love and knowledge of gardening. He, and perhaps Rodoreda too, believes in the superiority of the natural world to the artificial – when Feliu, an artist who visits Francesc and Rosamaria every year, asks him for an opinion on his painting, he answers:

“What can I say? No matter how it’s done, I still prefer the real thing to any painting of the sea.”

Life at the villa changes when a new villa is constructed next to it by Bellom, who has made his fortune in South America and is building it for his daughter and son-in-law. While the villa is being built, with no expense spared, the gardener has a visit from an elderly couple who are looking for their son, Engeni, who they have not seen for a number of years. They hope he may have been in touch with Rosamarie, who was once close to him. Though this is not the case, after his parents leave, it soon becomes clear that Engeni is the son-in-law who will be arriving at the new villa within weeks with his new wife, Mirabel.

The situation has the potential for melodrama, but the distance created by the narration creates an atmosphere of uncertain suffering instead. There are warning signs when Engeni befriends the gardener, helping him to collect seeds and tend the garden, as he says he did when he was a child. “I have a feeling you’re one of those people who lives in the past,” the narrator tells him.

“It’s hard to say if I do or I don’t. Sometimes I think I do, other times, no. I’m rather detached from the past.”

Perhaps what he means is that, although he has left the poverty of his youth behind, he still loves Rosamaria.

In a sense love and wealth are the two poles of the novel. If the rich are different, it is because they find love difficult, from Francesc’s flirtation with the Brazilian maid, Miranda, to Bellom’s confession that his dead wife, whom he claimed to love as much as the narrator loved his, “slept with every known friend and acquaintance”- and he had only married her because her father was rich, the same reason we suspect Rosamaria married Francesc. In contrast, the only married couple we see closely, Engeni’s parents, are clearly devoted to each other, despite their disagreements and troubles. The narrator’s attachment to the garden, meanwhile, is also an attachment to his wife:

“…while I’m here she won’t be gone, not completely… believe me, it’s true: she won’t be completely dead.”

Appropriately, Garden by the Sea is as beautiful a novel as the garden we imagine its narrator lovingly tends.

The Tea Lords

August 30, 2014

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For my final Women in Translation Month book I thought I would focus on a writer who is apparently regarded as one of the most important of her own country yet is still little known here. Hella Haasse is a Dutch writer whose career began in the 1940s and continued until the 2000s (she died in 2011). Her novels have sporadically appeared in English, but it was only in 2010 that The Tea Lords, considered her greatest achievement, became available thanks to translator Ina Rilke, who also translated her first novel, The Black Lake, in 2013.

The Tea Lords is set in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) where Haasse was born in 1918. The novel begins in the 1870s and ends on the first of February 1918 – Haasse was born on the second. The colony would obviously be well known to Haasse, and the period would be within living memory when she grew up there, however the novel did not spring from her imagination but is based on the records of a particular family, as is explained in an afterward:

“The material…is not invented; rather, it has been chosen and arranged to meet the demands of a novel.”

This origin affects the novel: as an accurate picture of life for the Dutch colonists it is probably unsurpassed, but it seemed to me there was at times a certain gentleness towards the characters that may have arisen from a concern not to traduce individuals who once lived, and whose relatives aided the author’s research. The novel’s form also seems affected, particularly in the latter half when much of it is presented in the form of letters and diaries. In an imaginative novel this might be a way to give us insight into the characters; here there is a suspicion that the extracts may simply have been lifted as if the process of fictionalising events had become tiresome.

This is not to say that the story the novel tells is not interesting. Its central character is Rudolf Kerkhoven, the eldest son of a family with strong connections to the colony. Rudolf views his education in Holland as a necessary step before returning to Java, as we see in the novel’s prelude which describes his first day at Gamboeng, the estate that will become his own:

“He was twenty-four years old and for the first time in his life, he was his own man, his own master. Everything he had experienced until then was merely preparation for this moment.”

Rudolf’s two great character traits are his determination to succeed and the ever-present feeling that his success is never fully recognised by the rest of his family. Family slights are commonplace in his mind, but, whereas in a novel the writer may have engineered a confrontation, here they are played out (more accurately) in letters and diaries. In common with many novels of the colonial experience, Rudolf’s love of the land is shown to be entirely sincere. Relationships with the local population are touched on but often along the lines of “I can’t run this household properly unless I am strict with them.” Generally, they are denied both a presence and a voice, perhaps surprisingly for a novel written in 1992. (Again, the nature of the novel’s creation is an influence on this).

More surprisingly, women are also largely absent from the early part of the novel. It is towards the middle before Rudolf seeks to marry, Haasse giving us insight to his fiancée via a diary that she allows Rudolf’s sister to read so she can convey her thoughts to Rudolf. This, however, she doesn’t do:

“I didn’t mention all those bad dreams and gloomy thought soft yours. Far better to leave them out.”

This is something we are reminded off after Jenny’s death when Rudolf reflects on how well he actually knew her. It’s also interesting for the reader as we see the narrative focus on Rudolf has left Jenny marginalised for much of the novel, learning, for example, that:

“It was largely thanks to Jenny’s efforts that signatures in support of Captain Dreyfus were collected on the grandstands of the Bandoeng racecourse.”

This hint of dissent seems out of place in what is a very traditional novel in more ways than one. Haasse’s ambition is to tell the story of the ‘Tea Lords’ and in this she is successful. It’s the type of novel where you are educated on its topic. It also makes an interesting comparison with other novels of colonial life, particularly as it comes from outside the English language tradition. If these are not what you are looking for, however, I would suggest The Black Lake as a much better place to become acquainted with Haasse.

The Hunger Angel

August 19, 2014


In an afterword to The Hunger Angel, Herta Muller reveals its origins in fact: in the aftermath of the Second World War Stalin insisted that Germans between the ages of seventeen and forty-five living in Romania (which had allied itself with Germany) be deported to the Soviet Union to ‘rebuild’. Muller’s mother spent five years in a labour camp, but for this novel she draws mainly on the memories of poet Oskar Pastior with whom she originally planned to write a book on the subject. When he died she eventually pursued the idea alone, using the notes they had made together over many conversations to recreate the experience of the forced labour camps where hunger dominated. Muller has had a patchy history of translation, with only a couple of books appearing in the 1980s and 90s, but a Nobel Prize in 2009 has led to her work being made available more regularly in English, in this case by Philip Boehm who includes an interesting note of his own about the nuances of translating her language.

The Hunger Angel begins prior to Leo’s deportation (Leo is presumably based on Pastior), revealing his homosexuality and his guilt:

“But the more I tried to stop myself, the faster I went back – after two days. For a rendezvous, as it was known in the park.”

What is interesting about this is that it disappears as a concern once he is in the camp, emphasising how imprisonment eliminates much of what makes him an individual, but it also prevents a straightforward reading which would interpret the camp as bad and therefore outside the camp as good:

“Before, during and after my time in the camp, for twenty-five years, I lived in in fear – of my family and of the state.”

The majority of the novel, however, is focused on the camp. Muller writes about this with the kind of detail you would expect from a writer with access to a first-hand account. At the centre of the inmates’ experience is hunger:

“…there is a hunger which is always new, which grows insatiably, which pounces on the never-ending old hunger that already took such an effort to tame. How can you face the world if all you can say about yourself is that you’re hungry. If you can’t think of anything else.”

The personification of hunger as the hunger angel makes this feeling an enemy to be resisted:

“The hunger angel looks at his scales and says:
You’re still not light enough for me. Why don’t you just let go.
I say: You’re deceiving me with my own flesh…But I am not my flesh. I am something else and I won’t let go.”

The idea of the angel suggests not only omnipresence and death but a certain beauty and attraction.

Muller captures brilliantly the circumscribed world of the camp with its narrow focus on the optimum utility of every decision. This cannot even be described as being entirely about survival as we see when Leo thinks they are about to be shot:

“I pushed myself to the front row so I could be one of the first. That way I wouldn’t have to load corpses onto the truck…”

The novel is told is a series of short chapters (some are only a page). These create a picture of life in the camp and some of the prisoners, but there is little sense of progression over the period of incarceration. Muller describes the journey to the camp and the release, but in between time exists in a different form; the moment the narrative turns to the camp it is almost as if Leo has always been there.

The Hunger Angel is not an enjoyable book. Then focus on survival is relentless. The characters are limited by the very circumstances they find themselves in. There are moments when you feel as a reader you may never leave the camp, but there are also times when you find yourself absorbing the detail with the same desperation as those who needed that knowledge to survive.

The Topless Tower

August 12, 2014

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During Spanish Lit Month I reviewed Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by husband and wife Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo This collaboration was my first acquaintance with Silvina Ocampo (who was a prolific writer but notoriously unavailable in English) and may well have been my last if I hadn’t fortuitously discovered that only a few years ago Hesperus Press had published a translation by James Womack of The Topless Tower. It is referred to in the introduction (co-authored by Marion Womack, hopefully another marital co-production) as “one of only two novels published during Ocampo’s lifetime” (the other being the, at that time, untranslated Where There’s Love, There’s Hate) but this is a rather generous description as, at 56 pages, I would be reluctant to call it a novella.

Ocampo edited The Book of Fantasy with Borges and Casares (it includes one of her stories) and most of her fiction was of that genre, including her children’s fiction. The Topless Tower uses many of the tropes of children’s literature from the fairy tale tower of the title to an appearance from Alice in Wonderland. James and Marion Womack suggest this is one reason why she is not better known:

“But one more answer to the question of why Silvina Ocampo is not better known is that large parts of her activity, her imaginative stories and plays and poetry, has to be filtered, or so it seems, through the unfairly marginalising label of ‘children’s writing’.”

It is certainly true that, although The Topless Tower contains many elements of a children’s fable, one senses a darker intelligence behind it. Consider, for example:

“Will the images we’ve seen through our lives remain in our eyes? Will we be like a modern camera, filled with little rolls of film; of course, rolls that don’t require to be developed? If I die before reaching my home, before seeing my mother who I love so much, will she get to see the photographic film stored inside me?”

The idea and voice here are childlike but there is a gothic imagination behind the image.

In the story a young boy, Leandro, laughs at the paintings of a man who appears at the garden gate offering them for sale, particularly one of a yellow, windowless tower. He immediately finds himself trapped in just such a tower where he finds a room with an easel and paints. He soon discovers that whatever he paints becomes reality. Initially he struggles to control this ability: branches become spiders; creepers become snakes. Above all he wants to paint his mother, which he feels will unlock his imprisonment and allow his return home, but this proves most difficult of all.

The story becomes a fable about growing up. He paints a bird and monkey as companions but loses them carelessly. Next he attempts a self-portrait (showing increasing self-awareness) which gives him another perspective, dismissing his lost pets: “You were talking about those two as if they were humans.” In his pursuit of his mother’s face he creates a young girl:

“It wasn’t his mother, but he didn’t feel much disappointment about this. He had fallen in love with the little girl he had painted by accident.”

His maturing is also seen in the way that underlined words, those he doesn’t understand (“I’ll underline the words I don’t understand” he says at the beginning), increasingly disappear from the narrative.

The Topless Tower is a strange story, flickering between light and shade, but one that does haunt the memory. It does seem very slight for stand-alone publication, and would be better as part of a selected stories – one can only hope that might one day appear.